It was with perhaps unwarranted optimism that I placed my order for fish at JJ Fish & Chicken on East Washington.
There's nothing wrong with fried seafood per se. Fish and chips is perhaps Britain's most famous culinary export. In Wisconsin, the Friday fish fry is social bedrock second to nothing, not even Packers games. And some of the best seafood I've ever eaten came from a little fried seafood shack in Menemsha, Massachusetts, called The Bite. Menemsha, of course, has the advantage of being located on Martha's Vineyard, with no shortage of fresh seafood. I love Madison, of course, but it is not a seafood capital.
That's to say that when I order fish in Madison, I know what to expect, and make adjustments accordingly. And I was kind of interested in JJ Fish & Chicken's menu, because it offers five different kinds of fried fish -- catfish, perch, tilapia, "whitefish" and "jack salmon." (According to the menu, this last fish is also "whiting," although Googling both terms does not show results that indicate that jack salmon and whiting are, in other quarters, perceived to be the same thing).
Most fast food fish is labeled as "fish," so the different species here piqued my interest -- especially because I'm a big fan of Lake Superior whitefish, as found in the U.P. in spots like the End of the Rainbow Café (and Laundromat) in Silver City, Michigan, or the Tahquamenon Falls Brewery & Pub in Tahquamenon Falls State Park. Yum. I don't know why you can't seem to find Lake Superior whitefish on a menu around town, but it's scarce.
So of course I ordered the whitefish. I also ordered the catfish filet dinner (catfish is also available as nuggets, tails, and "catfish").
I opted for takeout. There is seating in JJ Fish & Chicken, but it's in uninviting, hard Formica booths and under lots of bright florescent lighting.
When I got home, I couldn't really tell which dinner was which. I tasted both. They tasted essentially the same. I finally figured out which was the catfish, because the fillet comes as a two piece dinner ($7.50) while the whitefish comes as a four-piece ($7). The catfish was without that distinctive, somewhat earthy, catfish flavor, although it was somewhat more tender than the whitefish, which looked more like perch and tasted like nothing.
The batter at JJ Fish & Chicken is not terrible. It's a light cornmeal mix, and it's salty but not otherwise overly seasoned. Fish dinners come in small (2-4 pieces) and large (3-5 pieces, $7-$9), with a tiny container of coleslaw and lots of French fries coated with a light and tasty batter. The French fries were possibly the best thing about the meal, although obviously not healthy. The coleslaw was loaded with horseradish, which I tend to like, but there was another slightly odd over-taste that reminded me of ammonia.
Family meals of fish (assorted) up to 50 pieces, dinners of chicken wings (up to 200) and regular fried chicken dinners are also on the menu along with one-pound dinners of chicken livers or chicken gizzards ($6). Pretty much everything else you can fry (okra, hush puppies, sweet corn, mushrooms, onions, cheese, jalapenos, cauliflower, and zucchini) is also available as a side ( $1.50-$4). Ask for hot dipping sauce, or barbecue... the staff is generous while doling out the Tabasco. Overall, the dinner left me with heartburn.
This is a member of a chain that started in New Orleans. There's not a lot of Cajun or Creole influence in the menu, though I suppose overall it might be classified as soul food.
Since the Mad Towne Fried Chicken less a block away has now closed, JJ is the east side's spot for this sort of battered fare, but if you're in the South Park Street area, check out the remaining Mad Towne outlet. Its fare is no healthier, but Mad Towne's batter is spicier, you get more fish for your money, and they throw in a can of Faygo pop to boot.